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The Comparison: Ben Howland vs. Steve Lavin as UCLA Head Coach

Ed Note: be sure to check the statistical analysis at the bottom

UCLA basketball has only had three losing seasons since 1948. The writer of this post was in school for two of the three, attending UCLA from ’01-’05. That 60-59 stretch was easily the school’s worst since the invention of television, and it contributes greatly to my understanding of the basketball program’s recent history.

Not unlike many college students, the allure of attending a university with a rich athletic tradition is what drew me to Westwood. Like so many of my classmates, I was disappointed not to experience the joys that come with rooting on a national championship-quality basketball team that one expects to see upon enrolling at UCLA. Luckily many students who entered school in subsequent years were able to live that excitement, and that brings me to the point of this post: comparing the Steve Lavin era at UCLA with Ben Howland’s tenure as head coach of the Bruins.

Lavin took over the program after the 1995-96 season, receiving the job over many other qualified candidates, including current Washington coach Lorenzo Romar who was an assistant with Lavin on the staff at the time. Jim Harrick’s Bruins were two years removed from winning a national championship, and Lavin was able to maintain a relatively high level of play his first two years. They went 23-8 and 24-8 those years, reaching the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen, respectively. The team maintained a decent level after that, winning usually around 22 games per season and reaching the Sweet Sixteen come tourney time.

That has always been the big selling point about Steve Lavin: he reached the Sweet Sixteen in five of six seasons.

You know what I say to that? Suck eggs.

We don’t play basketball at UCLA just to be pretty good every year and reach Sweet Sixteens, especially when you have NBA players like Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, Earl Watson, and Jason Kapono on the roster. We play to be the best in the conference, and the best in the country.

Lavin, though leading the team to steady finishes each year, could never get his team to a level of excellence. He had several huge wins as head coach — knocking off the number one team in the country on a few occasions, but he’d ruin that by suffering embarrassing losses.

Plus, that mentality is backwards; it’s UCLA that other coaches should brag about beating, not the other way around.

By the time his tenure came to an end, the program was an absolute disaster; the Bruins went 10-19, suffering its worst season since 1945. The team lost 10 times at home — 10! — and it was so bad UCLA lost two exhibition games. EXHIBITION GAMES. The ones where you bring in rag-tag kids to beat up on for a tuneup and the Vegas line is set at somewhere between 40 and 50 points. It was disgustingly embarrassing.

At this point, just saying that UCLA went to three straight Final Fours under Ben Howland should be enough to end the argument, but I’m filled with much more.

Bruins Nation goes into the character aspects of what made Lavin a bad coach, but I’ll stick to some stats and show how you can manipulate the numbers to tell the story you want.

Here are some stats I picked up from Jake’s Take on Sports that spin the story favorably towards Lavin in comparison. Through seven seasons as UCLA’s coach …

    NCAA tourney appearances for Lavin: 6
    NCAA tourney appearances for Howland: 4

    20 or more win seasons for Lavin: 6
    20 or more win seasons for Howland: 4

    Losing seasons at UCLA for Lavin: 1
    Losing seasons at UCLA for Howland: 2

That makes Lavin look pretty good, right? At least superior to Howland, no?

Well here’s the rest of the story.

    25-win seasons for Lavin: 0
    25-win seasons for Howland: 4

    Pac-10 titles for Lavin: 1
    Pac-10 titles for Howland: 3

    25-point or more losses under Lavin: 10
    25-point or more losses under Howland: 3

To read more about these constant, embarrassing losses under Lavin, Bruins Nation has you covered (courtesy to them for the Lavin stat about 25-point losses). Howland’s three 25-or-more point losses were: 97-72 to Arizona on Jan 17, 2004; 74-47 Nov 26, 2009 to Portland; and 97-68 Feb 20th to Washington.

I should also note that Lavin got to inherit his team from Harrick, while Howland inherited Lavin’s mess.

The last year and a half under Howland has been difficult to endure, and littered with recruiting errors, but at least the team is back to winning somewhat. The point is when UCLA and St. John’s play Saturday, make sure you don’t let anyone try to compare Laving to Howland in a favorable light. If they do, refer ‘em here.



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  • Anonymous

    whats it like to be a curse on your own school?

  • http://larrybrownsports.com Larry Brown

    haha, easy there, Spin